Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions at the Terra Scientia on Klyazma River National Educational Youth Forum
Thank you for such a warm welcome. I have been invited for the third time running. I am very pleased to receive these invitations because it is very important for international relations professionals to talk to young people who are interested in diverse issues. All the more so since this forum has gathered sociologists and political scientists – professions that are very closely intertwined and, I believe, necessary to figure out what life is about, including international life.
I will share with you some of our assessments. I will not take up your time with long opening remarks because President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin has expressed his opinion on these issues more than once and our position is well known.
We are going through a critical stage in international relations. The previous era is receding into the past. During this era the West dominated international affairs for centuries, whereas now what we call a polycentric world order is objectively taking shape. This is a natural process because life is moving ahead. New centres of economic growth and financial might are emerging on a par with those that pioneered the world’s development, on a par with Western countries. Naturally, political influence is coming along with all this. These new countries want to uphold their interests by taking part in forming the international agenda and setting the tone, especially in those regions where respective centres of power are emerging – China, India, Brazil and, to a certain extent, South Africa. There are larger countries on the African continent, but sustainable development is only typical for South Africa so far.
Let me repeat once again that this is a trend whereby new emerging centres of power are assuming responsibility for ensuring security and stability in their regions and in the world arena as a whole. It is impossible to stop this process because by and large multi-polarity reflects the truly existing cultural and civilisational diversity of the modern world, and, of course, the desire of nations to determine their destinies themselves and a striving to establish justice – approximately as it was seen by those who wrote the UN Charter that contains all the fundamental principles that remain topical today, being universal for all states. Let me say once again that this is an objective process, which is anything but simple. First, a change of eras is always a very long period (you don’t wake up in the morning and multi-polarity is already here). This will continue for a long time. Second, apart fr om objective reasons, I want to emphasise that this process is meeting with active resistance, primarily fr om those who dominated the world before and want to preserve the old order in the new conditions and, deep down, forever. This is manifest in different things. We will talk about this, of course.
25 years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Treaty Organisation was disbanded, there was a choice that major politicians in the West thoroughly discussed. The choice was in favour of disbanding NATO and for everyone to focus efforts in the OSCE and develop – based on this universal Euro-Atlantic framework and each participant's equal rights – new approaches to security so that no one would be impinged on. During that period, a new term – equal and indivisible security – was coined. Although the OSCE issued corresponding declarations, NATO was never disbanded. The North Atlantic Alliance was the setting for the actual efforts of its western member states to secure their military and political interests, of course. They have never been seriously engaged in solving any questions of practical importance within the OSCE. What they engage in mostly is ideology-driven discussions, attempts to promote their pseudoliberal values, passing them off as universal ones. The universal values are formalised in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted after the United Nations was founded. Everything to do with imposing one's additional views on certain aspects of modern life, as well as imposing one's approaches, including to human rights, on other countries, certainly does not correspond to the principles that the UN is based on. To repeat, back then the choice was made not in favour of disbanding military blocs, disbanding NATO, but in favour of the illusion that was referred to as “the end of history,” as allegedly the world didn't have any prospects other than capitalism. The illusion turned out to be just that. One cannot call the shots for the whole world, acting as a club of the chosen. This could not work, and it did not work. What’s more, this same model of globalisation, including its economic and financial aspects, which has formed the so-called liberal globalisation club and benefitted their interests, is currently a fiasco, I think. This has become obvious for many people with common sense in the West.
For our part, 25 years ago, when we were experiencing all those events, we proceeded fr om the fact that we all won the Cold War, and it was a common victory. We wanted to believe that the idea of pan-European, global and equal security, as was recognised by the UN Charter, would come into fruition. Remember, back in the 1990s, our country was still recovering fr om the consequences of the collapse of the USSR and there was a huge number of difficulties, the debt, setting up borders that appeared overnight between former Soviet republics, social problems and many other issues. At that time, western leaders thought that Russia was weak and would remain weak, and they would incorporate our country into their world order as an obedient partner, and they would call the shots on everything. Back then, one had to be hugely insightful to envision any other scenario in international affairs. The late Yevgeny Primakov looked beyond the horizon and formulated his concept of multipolarity. At that time, there were few of those who were able to foresee that becoming reality. Mr Primakov substantiated this model in his works and showed the disastrousness of a unilateral approach and efforts to organise international affairs. You may recall that following this, in February 2007 Russian President Vladimir Putin, when addressing the Munich Security Conference, spoke fr om the perspective of the post-Soviet experience, developed these thoughts further and gave specific examples showing it was no longer possible to handle matters as “leader and follower”. At least, we will not allow anyone to speak to Russia like this.
Obviously, it is impossible to impose one form of globalisation on all. Nations want to uphold their national identity and ensure their independence. They do not want anyone to command or prod them. Clearly, those who are still clinging to the unipolar world do not want to yield their positions, although objectively this is impossible to imagine. This era is receding. However, attempts to slow down these processes continue. Hence the unilateral coercive measures that circumvent the UN Security Council, absolutely illegitimate unilateral sanctions, repeated military interventions in the internal affairs of other states, including attempts to change regimes that are resented by some of our Western colleagues, and also the ex-territorial application of national laws, for which the United States is famous now. The European Union seems to have started to pay attention. Results are here for everyone to see – crises and conflicts and decaying states. Statehood is under serious threat in Iraq and Libya. At the same time, havoc was wreaked in other countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The interventions in Iraq and Libya paved the way for terrorists to the rest of Africa, including Central Africa, as well as to Central and Southeast Asia. ISIS is already there and people are deeply worried about this. The path for extremists and terrorists has been opened in Europe as well. Facing the pressure of problems that are tearing it apart, Europe should draw some conclusions, of course. We wish success to the Europeans. Many European countries pursued a policy that led to these crude illegal coercive actions and eventually to what we are witnessing today. This is on top of the internal problems of our European neighbours, which are linked with Brexit and the growing discontent with the Brussels bureaucrats that have started taking too much upon themselves, ignoring the opinions of EU members. In principle, I think we always say that we want to see the EU strong and united. Probably, we still underrate the extent of its independence and ability to address current challenges in a constructive spirit and to conduct an equitable and mutually beneficial dialogue and cooperation with Russia, ignoring the aggressive Russophobic minority that is trying to abuse the EU’s principles of consensus and solidarity and demands that the position of all other members should be based on the lowest common denominator. This lowest denominator is markedly anti-Russian. I hope that serious EU countries that fully understand that it is unacceptable to conduct affairs in such a style will be working for what is absolutely logical – if this is consensus an agreement should take into account all views rather than follow the lead of those who have decided to capriciously impose aggressive and confrontational approaches on everyone. Obviously, now that the West is fighting to preserve its dominance, our American colleagues are using the current situation, including anti-Russian positions of their allies inside Europe, so as to keep it within the bounds of so-called Atlantic solidarity – to preserve the importance of NATO, which cannot function without the United States, and at the same time to pursue their own economic interests. As you know, the recent package of anti-Russian sanctions faced clear resistance in Europe because it bluntly states that gas should be bought fr om the United States, although it costs much more there. The goal is to keep Europe in the Atlantic boat and simultaneously promote the interests of its energy companies. This is done brazenly by using methods of absolutely unfair competition.
Such theories are put forward to justify the wish to preserve the western-centric world order. In reality, this is the road to chaos because many players will never be able to come to terms between themselves. It would probably be better to take a look at themselves and start analysing their own conduct to see what is happening in the world and what is producing chaos. If we look at the facts, we will see that the chaos created in Iraq, Libya and the Middle East and North Africa in general, the impetus for these negative processes triggered by outside interference with the use of crude force, is part and parcel of the unipolar world that our western colleagues are now trying to preserve. Speaking about chaos, another analysis seems more appropriate. There are many facts that show that the authors of the controlled chaos theory have many supporters among active politicians. At any rate, this conclusion of many western political scientists is fairly justified. When there is permanent turbulence in regions that are far away from the United States, the countries that are next to these crisis areas have to do more to ease tensions and less to promote their economies and opportunities in the world arena. We suggest getting back to roots, to the UN Charter, as I said in the beginning of my remarks, and ensuring respect for its principles of sovereign equality of states, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and settlement of any conflicts exclusively by peaceful means.
Our western colleagues often demand that Russia and other countries that are trying to act independently guarantee the supremacy of law at home. But as soon as we propose applying this principle to international affairs, they back-pedal. The principle of the supremacy of law that is supposed to be universal is approached with double standards. It is good for imposing one’s own rules on people abroad but no good for adopting an equitable and honest approach to international affairs. No one can be satisfied with what is happening with attitudes to international law today.
Russia will work to consolidate multipolar trends. This is an objective process and attempts to stop it are unacceptable. These anti-historical attempts are being made by those who are on the wrong side of history. Russia is one of the centres of world civilisation. I know that some of our liberal analysts and commentators say that we should not emphasise that we are “special,” that this will lead to nothing good and that instead we should “merge” with the West. Other analysts, also liberal by the way, have come up with the very interesting idea that Russia is the easternmost Western country and the westernmost Eastern country. This is indeed so geographically and geopolitically, and exemplifies the need to respect one’s own culture and history, to carry out modernisation respecting rather than rejecting one’s roots.
The contribution that we are trying to make to international affairs is always creative and constructive. We always want to achieve something. Probably, this is why it is resented by the advocates of the controlled chaos theory who want to use it in their own interests in the hope it is easier to fish in troubled waters. There is absolutely no doubt that we will continue pursing an independent foreign policy as President of Russia Vladimir Putin said, and take approaches to international affairs that are based not on attempts to impose ideas and actions on others but on a search for honest compromise and agreements that balance the interests of all parties involved.
We know that part of the Western elite would like Russia to be weak (this is one of the goals of the sanctions war) and ready to make concessions at the expense of its own interests. We will not do anything at the expense of our interests and this is common knowledge. However, we are always ready to come to terms. Since the emergence of merchants, people in our country have shaken on deals, there was no need to sign anything. One of the traits of our people is keeping promises. If we do not promise, it means we simply cannot do it for whatever reason and honestly say so. We are open to talks and dialogue with everyone without exception, including the EU and the United States. As you know, this dialogue continues although it slowed down a bit and is not as regular as before. Essentially, it has never stopped. The main point is for everyone to treat us as an equal partner. In that case, I am convinced everything will be okay and we will find a balance of interests that can be called justice.
I wanted to keep my opening remarks a bit shorter but went long. Now I’m ready to talk with you.
Question: What, in your opinion, is the idea of the Russian nation and what could it be based on?
Sergey Lavrov: As I understand, the law on the Russian nation is an initiative that is being developed in the Federal Assembly. Regardless of whether there is a law or there is no law, the most important thing is that there is a nation. This is primarily about history, a sense of one’s own identity: this is not a Russian word but it has already become part of our language, as well as other languages, and it means a state wh ere you associate yourself with the country you live in, with the city or village you live in or wh ere your ancestors were born; when you associate yourself with culture, which is constantly enriched and expanded with creative works in music, the theatre and cinema; when you associate yourself with the fact that you, your children, parents, grandparents and great grandparents lived, live and will continue to live in this country. Then perhaps you should be interested in your country becoming stronger. If this is so (I hope that everyone shares this interest), then it will be far easier for us to address our foreign policy tasks. The stronger we are, the easier it is to do that and the easier it is to solve problems, which will enable us to further strengthen our economy, social sphere and defence capability.
Question: You are constantly in the public eye, and I would like to thank you for never embarrassing us in front of millions of people.
Sergey Lavrov: Cross your heart?
Question: It is thanks to you and President Vladimir Putin that Russia remains the best and most powerful country in every sense. Who do you see as a worthy candidate for the post of Foreign Minister when you go?
Sergey Lavrov: As you know, in Russia, government appointments are made by the President, so this will be up to the Russian people to decide.
Question: You have served as Foreign Minister for 13 years. What talks have been the most exciting and the most memorable for you during this time?
Sergey Lavrov: Talks that produce results, I suppose. I would not say that “exciting” is an appropriate word here. There can be riveting talks, when you see that there is just a little left to do, all you need is to find the right phrase and your negotiating partner or opponent will accept the rest, which already suits you.
One example of productive talks is what we achieved with Iran’s nuclear programme and what, unfortunately, our US partners are now calling into question. Even though the Donald Trump administration has confirmed that with regard to the agreements that were signed, Iran is doing everything stipulated under the agreements, nevertheless, representatives of the Trump administration continue to say that these negotiations were wrong and a mistake. It’s a pity that such a successful treaty is now in doubt.
Another example in recent years is that almost a year ago, as a result of negotiations with John Kerry, it proved possible to coordinate our approach on a political settlement in Syria. I believe it was a real breakthrough, which ensured complete coordination of actions by the Russian Aerospace Forces and the US-led coalition. The only condition, also stipulated by that agreement, was the US obligation to separate the opposition that it supports from the terrorists, in particular Jabhat al-Nusra. Although they [the Americans] signed this agreement with us, they failed to fulfil this condition. If they had kept their promise, I believe there would already have been great progress on the political settlement in Syria and preparations for elections would have been under way. However, the US proved unable to do so. I suspect there were people there who, unlike John Kerry, did not want to separate terrorists from the regular opposition.
There is also an array of border delimitation treaties that we have signed with China and Kazakhstan. Negotiations with China lasted for several decades. It was largely because the treaty was signed about 10 years ago that we have now formed an unprecedentedly strong Russian-Chinese tandem, including in the international arena.
These are just a few examples that immediately came to mind.
Question: The name of outstanding diplomat Yevgeny Primakov evokes in all of us a special feeling of patriotism and pride for a person who has made an enormous contribution to Russian politics. Could you talk about the history of your relationship with him? What were the most important words that you heard from Mr Primakov that helped you in your life and in your career?
Sergey Lavrov: We worked together very closely when Mr Primakov became Foreign Minister. Nevertheless, we had already been in close contact in his previous official capacities, when he was Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service and worked at the USSR Supreme Soviet and the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. However, our friendship became particularly close, strong and personal only after he was appointed head of the Foreign Ministry. At that time I was already in New York. Mr Primakov went there several times, among other things to attend UN General Assembly sessions. He was a man of amazing personal qualities, who constantly thought about his friends, who religiously respected friendship, his family and all those he was close to in his youth, worked with or addressed some matters with.
As I said in my opening remarks, Mr Primakov is the architect of the multipolarity theory. I remember the time when he came to New York in September 1996. We went to a Russian banya [bathhouse]. We walked out of the steam room, sat at a table with some beer (excuse me for reminding you) and dried salted Caspian roach. As usual, we were wrapped in sheets and he said a decision had been made to send me to Washington. I was taken aback and asked him what for. He said that I was politically immature, and pointed out that Washington was the place to be. I begged to differ, saying that I thought New York was that kind of place. I recalled that he was the architect of the multipolarity theory. And wh ere was multipolarity made? In Washington, wh ere you had to phone and wonder whether or not you would be received, or in New York, wh ere you entered the building of the UN General Assembly or Security Council and everything was abuzz with activity there, all countries were represented, with ambassadors walking about, all the information coming right into your hands and wh ere it was possible to work at many venues? He said again that I was politically illiterate and that he would make the decision by the time I went home on leave (to be precise, there was some conference to attend). When I arrived, naturally, I did not ask him that question. He waited and then said that after some consideration he had decided that I should continue working in New York for the time being. Mr Primakov was not an obstinate person. He had never been a “unipolar” man. As a minister, he would never stick to his opinion if you presented good arguments to him.
Question: I have a question about Syria. We watch television and some doubts arise. Are our American comrades and the coalition they lead really fighting terrorism? Or are they only creating a semblance of that?
Sergey Lavrov: I already touched on this issue when I talked about the document that former US Secretary of State John Kerry and I had coordinated but the Americans failed to meet the key condition for the agreement to be fully implemented. They failed to separate the opposition detachments that cooperated with them from the terrorists. They failed to ensure that opposition groups on the ground, based near Jabhat al-Nusra, leave their positions so that it would be possible to finish off the terrorist group that remained there. They failed to do so.
I have mixed feelings about the way the coalition is operating. We have already talked about that. I have no doubt that the coalition is committed to eradicating the so-called Islamic State. All of the coalition’s actions are designed to bleed this group dry, depriving it of support, fragmenting and liquidating it. In this regard, our goals completely coincide. By the way, Presidents Putin and Trump recently stated this when they met in Hamburg. We are in contact through our foreign policy agencies. Both sides believe these contacts are useful.
As for Jabhat al-Nusra, it is a somewhat different kind of animal, as they say. This organisation is opposed to the Islamic State but, just as ISIS, it is on the list of terrorist organisations that was approved by the UN Security Council. By all standards, as such, it is not simply a legitimate but a mandatory target for all those who are fighting the terrorist threat in Syria.
There is ample evidence that certain outside players may be tacitly accepting and even encouraging the US. They are protecting Jabhat al-Nusra. At least, the US-led coalition, which is carrying out active strikes against ISIS, is not so active with regard to Jabhat al-Nusra, if it conducts any serious operations against it in the first place. Not that I remember. There is a suspicion that they are trying to protect it in order to use it later as a battle worthy group in fighting against the Syrian government and bringing about regime change after ISIS is routed (nobody should have any doubts that this will happen although exactly when this will happen is hard to say right now; we are doing all we can to make it happen). I cannot say this with 100 percent certainty but to reiterate, there is substantial evidence that somebody is not averse to playing this card.
Question: I have been interested in politics and economics since 2013, and I recently made an interesting observation. It appears that the economy has been restructured to a greater extent during the three crisis years than during the 13 years of sustained development. Can this be explained by the Kremlin’s advanced technologies or by the White House’s near-sighted irresponsibility?
Sergey Lavrov: I am not responsible for the economy. Our task is to create the most favourable external conditions for the country’s development. We must see to it that no one offends or discriminates against our citizens and compatriots, that Russian culture and the positions of the Russian language be protected, and that Russian business is not subjected to unilateral discriminatory restrictions. I have already spoken about this but, again, some of our people are saying that we should have thought about all this at that time, that we should not have reintegrated Crimea into Russia, that we should not have helped self-defence fighters in Donbass, and that we should not have launched the campaign in Syria. There are such people. I would like to say a few words about what was in store for Russian-speaking people in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Right Sector leader Dmitry Yarosh said in late February, after the coup and before people started seriously thinking about holding a referendum in Crimea, that a Russian would never understand a Ukrainian, that he or she would never speak Ukrainian, and that there should be no Russians in Crimea for this reason. If those opposing Russian foreign policy believe that we should have left this entire situation to its own devices, all the more so as these statements were followed by an attempt to seize the Crimean Supreme Council building by force, then I cannot agree with this position.
Do you remember the recent debate about a pragmatic stand? As far as I remember, some person speaking on a liberal Russian television channel started asking whether it was necessary to hold Leningrad during the war, whether it would have been simpler to surrender it, and that this would have allegedly reduced the substantial death toll. It seems to me that this discourse is similar to assertions about abandoning the Russians in Crimea and Donbass. All this also concerns the issue of the Russian nation. We need to remain concerned and preserve our genetic code. We would have failed to defend Leningrad and to win the war without this genetic code. I am not urging everyone to take militarised action; I just want to say that we cannot discard certain issues if we are a nation. It would have been a crime to surrender Crimea to the Nazis who staged the coup in Kiev, which led to the current Ukrainian leadership.
Question: I have a question about the Shuren hydropower plant that Mongolia is now trying to build. What is the current status of this process? In January 2017, you said that you would protect Lake Baikal which is currently facing serious problems. A shallower Selenga River could greatly affect the lake. What is the Foreign Ministry’s position? Will you protect Lake Baikal?
Sergey Lavrov: Our position remains the same. We are confident that Mongolia’s power-generating and supply issue can be resolved rather easily, without resorting to construction of a hydropower station on the Selenga River. I have repeatedly discussed this issue with the Mongolian Foreign Minister, and our national leaders have also had these conversations.
Russian Minister of Energy Alexander Novak raised this issue several days ago. The Russian Energy Ministry has already drafted a specific plan that could be suggested to the Mongolian side to resolve the issue of increased power demand. Most importantly, we have provided the Mongolian side with these practical opportunities. Naturally, we will protect Lake Baikal.
Question: There is a view that countries lacking nuclear weapons are unable to conduct an independent policy. Is this viewpoint and principle observed in modern international relations?
Sergey Lavrov: You are correct that this is a point of view, rather than principle. There are several aspects of this issue to consider. There are two groups of countries with nuclear weapons. There are countries that have officially been recognised as nuclear powers. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons lists five countries as legitimate and lawful owners of nuclear weapons; these countries are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. At the same time, it is understood that all parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons shall press for the non-proliferation of nuclear technologies, and that the role of nuclear weapons will be constantly reduced in the context of common efforts to maintain global security, and that technologies for the civilian use of nuclear energy will be utilised worldwide, including the construction of nuclear power stations, the use of the energy of an atom in medicine, etc. As you know, new nuclear powers, including India and Pakistan that didn’t sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, emerged after this. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) signed this Treaty but later withdrew from it. Today, Pyongyang is saying that it has every legitimate right to develop nuclear weapons, and that it continues to do so. You know our position: We cannot accept a North Korea in possession of nuclear weapons. China and Russia have submitted a number of proposals aiming to prevent an extremely serious conflict, a crisis with a huge number of fatalities. Unfortunately, the rhetoric in Washington and Pyongyang is becoming over-heated. We hope that common sense will prevail.
Many people recall the example of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein who had signed a treaty with the UN. Acting in line with that treaty, international experts checked the whole of Iraq and turned everything upside down. All remaining components of the Iraqi nuclear programme were eliminated, and nothing else was found. Nevertheless, they overthrew Hussein, no matter what, because he as a “dictator,” as he was called, was unacceptable for our US and British colleagues. They destroyed the country to satisfy their hatred.
Libya also implemented its own nuclear programme, but the Libyans themselves renounced it. Everyone knows what happened to Muammar Gaddafi.
When we deal with certain countries, including those in the region we are discussing, they speak in undertones about the Iraqis and Libyans who had renounced nuclear weapons and about what had been done to them. You have a right to ask this question, but we, of course, will demand that possession of nuclear weapons should not become a criterion for respecting everyone in a modern world. This is not right.
Question: How hard was it for you to hold talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson? Is it different from talks with former US Secretary of State John Kerry?
Sergey Lavrov: Of course, every person is an individual. Certain specifics are manifested during conversations on everyday topics and during discussions of professional issues. People are different. As far as I can tell, both of them promote US interests the way each of them considered and considers optimal. I am ready to hold talks with any partners. Most importantly, instead of merely continuing our conversations, we need to start coming to terms, as we have with establishing the de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria. As I mentioned, a similar process continues to involve diplomats and military experts. They maintain working and pragmatic contact. This contact meets our mutual interests because the Russian Aerospace Force’s elements are deployed there, and the US-led coalition also continues to operate in the region. True, Russian forces were invited by the legitimate Syrian Government, and the US-led coalition was not invited. This is an established fact. We need such contact in the interests of combating terrorism. They are also maintained to facilitate the political process and to create favourable conditions enabling the government of Syria and the opposition to sit down at the negotiating table and start coordinating their country’s future without any outside interference.